Many in the region, craving modern governance and fearing fundamentalist or sectarian rule by force, still look for leadership from the United States. But our government seems reactive, off balance, lurching from headline to headline. A conscious, comprehensive new American strategy is needed. It should focus on effective self-rule as the goal across the region — rewarding it where it exists, and helping those areas withstand the maelstrom next to them. Quarantine the chaos, and immunize neighboring states that can serve as positive contrasts.
Such a policy should not be wedded to discredited institutions or borders, like those that now define Iraq. Instead, it would identify and reinforce positions of strength — good local governance; leadership based on local design; the rule of law, whether secular or religious in its roots.
For Americans, the premise needs to be humility. Few, even in our government, know much about what is really happening amid the stifling heat, dust and smoke in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The Sunni and Shiite combatants are both drawn from many countries and sometimes battle enemies among their own sects. Across four fronts in Syria and at least three within Iraq, there is war in the streets. Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is entering a new spasm.